The arrival of summer promises a significant increase in unstructured time for our children. In many ways, this is a good thing. Unstructured time encourages creativity, decision-making, self-regulation, builds resilience, and provides an opportunity to “let off steam.” It also supports sensory integration through neuro-motor development.
According to one study, children who spent more time in less structured activities displayed better self-directed control and executive functioning than kids in primarily adult-organized or -directed activities (such as sports, art class, parent-led playdates, etc.). Although I cannot help but wonder if the children in the study who spent more time in less structured activities, were inherently better at self-direction and self-management (it’s the old chicken or the egg debate)…
While unstructured play has it’s benefits, at the same time, unstructured and unsupervised hours/days can quickly turn into free-for-alls that stress out parents and lead to unsafe or unhealthy behaviors in kids. If left to their own devices, many children might choose to eat candy for breakfast and dinner, play video games all day (and night), forget to change their underwear, “redecorate” the living room walls, and leave the dog to fend for itself.
So, what is a reasonable middle ground between control and chaos? The answer is: Structured Free Play.
Free play does not have to mean a free-for-all! A pet analogy may be helpful here. When your dog needs exercise, you likely do not open the front door and let them run free. Instead, you may take your dog to the dog park, where they are fenced, surrounded by their peers, and have access to all the items they need to play. This activity also includes time limitations and passive supervision (not control). The result is a safe and appropriate environment that allows dogs freedom to fulfill their physical, emotional, and cognitive needs. If the environment becomes unsafe or your dog cannot handle it, then you move toward a smaller more manageable space with carefully chosen “peers” and toys.
Structured Free Play offers a reasonable middle ground between control and chaos.
Similarly, kids need time and space to develop skills related to self-direction, decision-making, creativity, self-management, and an array of other executive functioning skills…and such skills are best fostered within a developmentally appropriate environment that strikes a balance between structure and self-directed play.
This summer, I invite you to integrate structured free play into your schedule. Yes, it takes more pre-planning on the part of the adult, but the results are worth it!
To help decide whether an activity strikes that balance between adult-lead and free for-all, you might ask yourself:
- Does it provide me with an opportunity to supervise but not directly lead and guide the activity? (Similar to a lifeguard at the pool)?
- Does it allow me to detach from the outcome (aside from physical safety)?
- Are the parameters and behavioral/safety considerations clearly outlined in advanced and within the child’s ability (developmental level) to follow without constant redirection?
Here are some examples of structured free play:
- Rotating stations with open-ended activities
- Playing at the pool or beach
- Going to the outdoor park, a waterpark, or the trampoline park
- Going to a (children’s) museum
- Scavenger hunts (created and completed by kids)
- Parallel play (reading, painting, puzzles, cloud gazing)
- Child-lead games and boardgames
- Child-lead hike/nature exploration
- Crafting and open-ended art projects
- Independent play time (free from screens) in the child’s room, playroom, or backyard.
A few final points to keep in mind:
- Scaffold your child’s free play success by scheduling it into the day or summer schedule.
- Keep in mind that if this approach is new to your kids (or you), there may be an adjustment period. Anxiety-based behavior typically means your approach is working, and that the child is learning new skills.
- If the child cannot handle the activity, look to provide increased structure and pre-planning at the onset. In other words, shrink the space, reduce options, and carefully handpick participants. You will know you have struck the right balance when the child is successful in directing his/her focus in an appropriate manner and you have detached from the outcome. The key is to resist the urge to direct his/her focus and play.
For less stress and more fun, give structured free play a try this summer! If you’re up for a real challenge, create space for your own structured fee play! Sometimes adults struggle more with free time than kids!
Hope you have a fabulous summer!
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